Trunk Full of Funk

First Degree Hip-Hop

In the world of hip-hop,SoundScan ain't shit. Not only does Billboard's high-tech sales accounting system miss the majority of mom 'n' pop record stores around the country, it also fails to document trunk sales, perhaps the single most valuable marketing vehicle for hip-hop's up-and-comers. The trunk technique, born on the West Coast and perfected by Miami bass masters, is simple: Young artists find places where there's a concentration of hip-hop fans, lure those prospective fans into a vehicle, play them the latest recording, and sell them the product out of the trunk. Not only does the trunk approach generate rare artist-to-fan recognition and loyalty, the mobile listening booth concept offers buyers albums at no risk; what you hear is what you get. As such, hip-hop salesmen with good product can sell thousands of units from the trunk of their cars - undetected by SoundScan or the record industry at large. It turns out this is hip-hop's real underground.

Swell and Boo of First Degree

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

Locally, hip-hop experts say nobody's perfected the trunk technique in Austin better than First Degree, an ambitious North Side hip-hop collective which has reportedly sold a combined 8,000 copies of their two self-released EPs out of their car. Considering that most locally based rock or country acts on giant major labels like Sony or Atlantic can't move 8,000 copies nationally - let alone here in town - First Degree's success is remarkable. Even more remarkable is where First Degree found its greatest trunk success: right in front of a record store that sells their CDs, MusicMania.

"We've found that if the music store people agree with you, out front is the best place to see music," says First Degree's Big G. "And we've been blessed to have great relationships with Central Texas music stores. They understand we're not trying to take business away from them. They really do see it as relationship. The more we sell outside, the more they sell inside."

Therein lies the promotional logic behind First Degree's local success; they understand hip-hop operates on word-of-mouth, particularly in towns where there are few radio outlets or live showcases.

"There's no promotion better than people buying the product and telling their friends," says Swell, another First Degree MC and Big G's younger brother. "While one guy might buy it out of the trunk, it's a good bet five of his friends will go to MusicMania looking for it."

Of course, the trunk technique is only as good as the music itself, and the reason First Degree have apparently done so well in the sales department is undoubtedly because the local hip-hop collective may be one of Austin's best and most artistically challenging local purveyors of the genre. The four MC's - Big G, Swell, Little J, and Boo - offer genuine lyrical flow and compelling street narratives, while Boo's self-taught production approach incorporates funky homemade beats, occasional sampling, and live, gospel-oriented choruses. Better yet, both EPs, 1997's Temperatures Rising and this year's First Degree Dynasty, canvass hip-hop's widening landscape, integrating elements of the hot Houston/Atlanta/New Orleans Southern Funk school with classic East and West Coast hip-hip approaches.

"Our sound matches different audiences, but doesn't sound like anybody else," explains Swell, who says he always asks prospective trunk buyers where they're from so he can play them tracks that incorporate their region's reigning sound. "We figure that if you sound like somebody else, why would somebody pick up the album? They'd want to buy the record from the person you sound like, not you. Plus, Austin isn't Houston or Dallas, so our thing should be a sound Houston or Dallas hasn't heard before."

What's almost as notable as First Degree's trunk approach is the group's commitment to forging an "Austin sound." Until recently, most local MCs have gone to Houston to chase success or simply claimed Houston roots on album because it enhanced their credibility. First Degree, on the other hand, mentions Austin on almost every track they rap, dropping "ATX" (Austin, Texas) or "COT" (Capital of Texas) at every turn. In fact, the claim from Temperatures Rising that they're "North Side trouble makers, Austin Texas undertakers" is simplified on First Degree Dynasty to "Austin born, North Side sworn."

"We take a lot of pride in claiming Austin," says Big G, who concedes that most self-proclaimed Austin hip-hop headz still fail to consider the Northside and believe that the Eastside scene or the Westside's MC Overlord/Big Game Hunter offerings are the only games in town. "People have been talking about Houston forever, and I think because Austin has never really done anything outside country music or whatever, there's been a hesitation to talk about Austin. We don't hesitate at all. That's where we're from, so we say it."

For Swell, claiming Austin is important, but looking beyond Austin is even more important.

"Austin is waiting for somebody to come out of here and I think we're going to be the group to do it, because we really work hard to make sure our music could compete nationally," says Swell, who met Boo while slinging burgers at a local Short Stop. "We're not recording in hole-in-the-wall studios. We want our product to sound just as good as the latest stuff from Scarface or Master P.'s camp. We like to look at ourselves as competing on that level. If you think local, you stay local."

One of First Degree's local strategies that has obvious national roots is their consistent release of new product. Only 10 months elapsed between the release of the two EPs, and First Degree is already promising a December release for their first full-length album.

"We released the second EP because we had to let our fans know we're still out there," says Boo. "It's not like the rap game used to be, where you could come back every two or three years. Master P and Rap-A-Lot have made it so that you have to keep dropping stuff or people will forget about you and move on. There can't be a gap. First Degree music always has to be circulating."

The primary reason First Degree can afford to record and release new material so quickly is that the trunk technique is a cash business where the money can be rolled into studio time and production costs immediately. In contrast, most regional or national distributors take up to six months to account for sales and send royalty checks. Not only is First Degree seeing a higher percentage of sales returned to them than the average record deal, they're also seeing the money fast. Considering the success they've enjoyed from just a couple of trunkloads of product, it's possible First Degree might double or triple those figures with traditional retail distribution.

"When we ordered the first 500 CDs and cassettes of Temperatures Rising it seemed risky," Big G says. "We had to really hit the streets and push it. To call it `hustlin' is to put it mildly. It's our full-time job - you don't have time for work or anything else. We also know that if we want to get to the next level, we'll eventually have to do a distribution deal and sign for a promotional package. We're really big on growing as independently as possible, but there's no way to stay independent completely. If we're trying to make Austin as big a hip-hop place as Houston or Dallas, we'll need help."

Although the sales figures and recent spins on regional radio have resulted in First Degree's fielding offers from managers, it's a good bet their homespun label will be helping out other Austin Northside acts even before they find a label to help them. In October, their label Fifth Wheel Entertainment will release The Untold Truth, a gospel album from Critical Issue, produced by Boo. Add a compilation album of Northside talent and their own full-length effort and it's obvious First Degree's trunk business will soon offer both service and selection. Swell says the new albums are just part of a plan to take First Degree out of the trunk and outside of Austin.

"When we make it and get national attention, there's a lot of people with a lot of talent here that are going to make it, too," says Swell. "We need to make the money, get situated, and bring those people up with it. We're always going to claim Austin and we're not going to forget anybody. Believe me, if we make it, the ATX makes it too, not just us."

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